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(Photos: The Fairfax Archive, additional design: Tina Tiller)
(Photos: The Fairfax Archive, additional design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyNovember 10, 2022

Over a million historic NZ photographs are going up for auction

(Photos: The Fairfax Archive, additional design: Tina Tiller)
(Photos: The Fairfax Archive, additional design: Tina Tiller)

Seized by the FBI and almost destroyed, a collection of photographs from Aotearoa has made it back home and will soon be going on sale.

Over 160 years of Aotearoa history will soon be available for purchase, with a major catalogue of once-lost photographs being put up for auction. 

If you hear the word “auction” and instantly assume you’ll be priced out, you could be in luck this time. This won’t be like the recent BNZ Art Auction that saw works fetch millions (literally). In fact, with over a million photographs up for grabs, this should be a far more affordable way to snatch up a unique piece. 

So what’s the story?

The photos come from what’s been dubbed the Fairfax Archives, named after the media giant that owned the images and published them across six local newspapers between 1840 and 2005. The archive contains roughly 1.4 million photographs from landmark moments in New Zealand history. 

How landmark are we talking?

Pretty landmark! There are photos of the 1981 Springbok Tour and the protests, Edmund Hillary’s summiting of Mount Everest, the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior, anti-nuclear rallies, the aftermath of the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake – and a lot more. 

There are even 40,000 photographs of the All Blacks, which is arguably far too many.

Princess Diana at Eden Park (Photo: Supplied)

Why are they only going up for sale now?

Settle in because this is quite the ride. 

For nearly a decade, these photographs were unavailable in New Zealand. Fairfax Media sent all 1.4 million images in the collection to be digitised back in 2013 – a move that ultimately ended in the photos being stuck overseas. That’s because the company intending to oversee the digitisation ended up bankrupt as part of a series of events that sounds almost cinematic. The company had been linked to “sports memorabilia fraud” and was eventually raided by the FBI.

Needless to say, the Fairfax Archives were temporarily lost, seized as collateral on a US$14 million loan. 

They were then at risk of being permanently destroyed, along with over two million images from the Sydney Morning Herald that were also being kept in overseas storage. 

Historic Queen Street (Photo: Supplied)

How did they make it back to New Zealand?

Daniel Miller from the Duncan Miller Gallery in Los Angeles stepped in and purchased the original prints, expecting they would be snapped up by the original newspapers in their respective countries. 

“We hired archivists to sort the photographs by hand and this took three-and-a-half years, as there were four million photographs,” he said. 

“More than 70 institutions have received photographs relevant to their public collections, however we had difficulty finding the best fit with an auction house in New Zealand to make these images available so we created a new auction platform,, where the images can be purchased.”

Some photos from this archive have gone up for sale in New Zealand already, via auction house Webb’s. However, the dedicated new Fairfax Archives platform has made it possible for the massive number of recovered images to be sold off.

Springbok tour protests (Photo: Fairfax Archives/Supplied)

Is this some sort of NFT thing?

I couldn’t even explain to you what an NFT is (though you can read all about them here). But no – these photos are the real deal.

“These are cultural artefacts,” said Miller. “The actual physical pieces used to create New Zealand’s newspapers and illustrate the history of the times. While similar prints are in several library collections in New Zealand, this is the first time these vintage prints have been made available to the public on a dedicated platform.”

OK, let’s get to the price then…

It’s expected most images will fetch between $100 to $400 once the auctions launch. Of course, it’s an auction, so that’s only an estimate.

That seems reasonable. So when does the auction start?

The collection will be split into a series of auctions based on the time period or event being photographed. The first auction will be a series of Queen Street images going up for sale next Monday, November 14. Then, on November 28, the Rainbow Warrior collection will go to auction.

And how do I actually bid?

You can register, and find other details, on the Fairfax Archives website.

Keep going!